Cleveland protests erupt after officer’s acquittal over fatal shooting

Clevalnd officer Michael Brelo found not guilty of killing unarmed black man and woman after a high-speed car chase in 2012

A Cleveland police officer was found not guilty on Saturday in the shooting deaths of an unarmed black man and a woman after a high-speed car chase in 2012, one in a series of cases that have raised questions over police conduct and race relations in the United States.

The judge’s verdict for Michael Brelo, 31, comes after a four-week trial on two counts of voluntary manslaughter in the deaths of Timothy Russell, 43, and Malissa Williams, 30, on Nov. 29, 2012. Brelo was also found not guilty on two counts of felonious assault.

Judge John O'Donnell ruled that Brelo – who was among a group of officers who fired at the car - had acted reasonably in shooting the two suspects while standing on the hood of their surrounded car and firing multiple rounds through the windshield.

The chase, which started in downtown Cleveland after reports of gunfire coming from the car, went through multiple cities at speeds topping 145 km/h and ended with 13 Cleveland police officers firing 137 rounds.

Russell was struck 24 times and Malissa Williams 23 times. No weapon was found in the car or along the route. A forensic mechanic testified that the car was prone to backfiring.

The judge found Brelo, who climbed on the car's hood once it had been cornered by patrol cars, had acted reasonably in the belief that the suspects were shooting at him and other officers. Prosecutors said he waited until the vehicle had stopped and the occupants were no longer a threat to step onto the hood and fire 15 rounds into the windshield.

Brelo faced 22 years in prison if convicted.

The trial, which began on April 6, was held amid increased focus on the law enforcement’s lethal force against unarmed black men in the US.

Following the judgment to acquit Brelo, some 200 demonstrators took to the streets in Cleveland and held a mock funeral procession. The procession took place near the home of the Cuyahoga County prosecutor who lost the case against Brelo and saw police patrol the area in riot gear.

The protesters were heard chanting “No justice, no peace,” with protests becoming larger and more unruly. Police said on Twitter there was an incident with a large crowd with people spraying others with pepper spray.

Police arrested at least three people at a restaurant after someone threw an object through a window and injured a customer.

U.S. Representative Marcia Fudge, a Democrat from Ohio, called the decision a "stunning setback on the road to justice."

"The verdict is another chilling reminder of a broken relationship between the Cleveland Police Department and the community it serves," she said in a statement.

"Today we have been told – yet again – our lives have no value," added Fudge, who is African-American.

The U.S. Justice Department said its civil rights division, the U.S. attorney's office and the FBI were reviewing testimony and evidence from the state trial and would determine if federal action would be taken.

More in World